Feb 27, 2018

The battle for benefits: people with disabilities fight back against broken system

Record numbers of Disability Support Pension applicants are having their claims rejected, often against the explicit advice of doctors. With nothing left to lose, some are choosing to fight.

Jeremy Poxon

Media Officer for the Unemployed Australian Worker's Union


After two years of failed applications for the Disability Support Pension — as well as numerous appeals — Quang Huynh, a 30-year-old Dandenong man, decided he’d had enough.

Rather than deal with the DHS’ confusing and overly bureaucratic appeals process one more time, he instead turned up at his local Centrelink office, hoping to finally prove once and for all he was indeed “disabled enough” to receive the benefit.

“It was a pretty farcical scene,” Huynh tells Crikey. “I stumbled and shuffled around the office, waving my medical certificates at their officers.”

This was no mean feat. Huynh, who is blind in his left eye from severe diabetic retinopathy, also has serious heart, liver and kidney conditions that routinely land him in hospital. According to his doctor’s notes, he finds it difficult to walk more than 50 metres safely.

“But, they [Centrelink] didn’t even look at my doctor’s statements. One lady said, ‘I can see you walking — if you can walk, you can find work.’”

As reported by Crikey last November, Huynh is one of thousands of Australians with a disability who are being unceremoniously rejected from the DSP and forced into Newstart — an increasingly punitive scheme which imposes extensive job search obligations for nearly 40% less pay.

[Disability support plummets as government turns up heat on the vulnerable]

Delegitimising people’s disabilities has become one of our government’s most determined budget savings drives. In the 2016-17 financial year, the rate of approved claims dropped by more than 50%, with 70,000 claims rejected. As it stands, the grant rate for DSP applicants is now at its lowest on record — around 15% of applicants are currently making successful bids.

According to The National Social Security Rights Network (NSSRN), DSP claimants’ medical evidence is routinely ignored by Department-appointed assessors. In a report released last month NSSRN revealed that, in 85% of cases they looked at, assessors didn’t even contact claimants’ doctors before making rulings against them.

Robert Kalsbeek, a 62-year-old from Geraldton in WA, told Crikey that a Centrelink psychologist ignored medical evidence provided by his GP, and ultimately denied him a DSP “because she watched me bend over and pick up a piece of paper”.

Kalsbeek suffers from chronic fatigue and a serious spinal injury, as a result of a work-related incident that cut his professional life short. Subsequently, he has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. His file was referred by the psychologist to a DHS-appointed occupational therapist, who, without meeting or phoning him, judged that he had the ability to work 15-22 hours a week and thus wasn’t entitled to a pension. Instead, he was forced onto Newstart payments.

Kalsbeek immediately appealed this decision — only to be rejected again eight months later by two new assessors. He then lodged a complaint with the Perth Administrative Appeals Tribunal. He describes the lengthy and convoluted process of fighting Centrelink’s judgements as an “ordeal” that greatly exacerbated his mental illness and quality of life. 

Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) — the leading provider of legal services to Victorians with disability and mental illnesses — are helping and advising innumerable clients like Kalsbeek who are experiencing acute distress caused by DSP rejections.

In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the DSP, VLA stated that “better decision-making by Centrelink at an earlier stage would reduce unnecessary hardship to people experiencing disability and would reduce costs to the community.”

Without sufficient expertise, many Centrelink assessors are making decisions that can dramatically impact people’s lives. So we have a situation where, for example, a psychologist can overrule a GP’s spinal injury diagnosis.

Vulnerable people like Huynh and Kalsbeek are being forced to spend years of their lives navigating an unforgiving system of confusing and stressful processes to “prove” and “justify” entitlements.

12 months after making his initial claim, the Adminstative Appeals Tribunal overturned Centrelink’s decision against Kalsbeek, citing the evidence that previously lay dormant in his doctors’ medical reports. After finally granting him the pension, the tribunal also awarded him almost $10,000 in back-pay entitlements.

Kalsbeek is now gearing up to take on the Department of Human Services in the District Court of Western Australia. He is demanding financial compensation for being thrust into distress and destitution by a department which he contends ignored and overlooked evidence he presented in his claims.

Advocacy groups like NSSRN and VLA encourage all failed DSP claimants to make as many claims and appeals as they can. Recent figures show that the tribunal immediately reverses 20-25% of Centrelink’s rulings — yet another indictment on the agency’s stringent and unfair decision-making.

NSSRN have also started meeting with the DHS to help ensure people with disabilities’ claims are being assessed more accurately, fairly and efficiently.

Without input from these advocacy groups, one can’t help but think the government would simply continue on its merry way: stacking the odds against disabled people with ever-tighter restrictions and removing their benefits in order to “unburden” the budget.

Ultimately, these groups, as well as individual claimants like Kalsbeek and Huynh, are fighting back against a culture that puts profit before people. Indeed, they are fighting for a more dignified welfare system that doesn’t scrounge savings by pushing people’s entitlements ever further out of reach.

Jeremy Poxon is a freelance writer and a Media Officer for the Unemployed Australian Worker’s Union.


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19 thoughts on “The battle for benefits: people with disabilities fight back against broken system

  1. ralph

    The return to budget surplus will be done on the backs of the sick and unemployed – core LNP philosophy.

    1. margaret handasyde

      Ralph, well said!. The LNP are ruthless in achieving a budget surplus which many may find laudable until they have to face the victims when of course ordinary compassion will rise up to choke them. LNP Ministers put a vast distance between themselves and those needing support with good reason.

      1. Peter Schulz

        And unfortunately, the man (and woman) in the street has his/her attitude to this formed by the one-sided accounts in the corporate media (especially the Murdoch tabloids) of welfare fraud. Their attitude changes somewhat when catastrophe strikes and they have to apply to Centrelink themselves. For many years I was a hospital social worker and saw again and again how shocked ordinary people were (when they were forced by tragedy to rely on Centrelink payments) to realise how low the payments were and how frustratingly difficult the process was.

        1. Lesley Graham

          I can relate, I got very sick. The doctors were unable to confirm whether I would be permanently disabled. I couldn’t afford work insurance. I was in the process of get health insurance, but none of those things matter when your stuck in hospital for 6 months. Then when I got home finally there was no going back to the life I knew. That’s the problem with people who have little idea of what is really going on for those who find themselves in this situation, like you say it doesn’t hit home until it happens to them or to a family member

  2. Itsarort

    It is absolutely NOT how the front staff at DHS/NDIA assess claims, nor is it, “…the agencies stringent and unfair decision-making”. It is simply the framework of the requirements within the legislation. GP’s, psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, physiotherapists further exasperate the problem by sending their poor patients off on some half-baked idea that they will automatically be eligible.

    If you want change, it would be best to attack the government’s guidelines and policies and at the very least, get doctors to familiarise themselves with them.

    1. Lesley Graham

      itsarort You really have no idea. Most doctors are extremely familiar with the way the system works or more to the point doesn’t work…. I can tell you my poor GP has been trying to deal with how DHS works for the last 30 years. Itsarort don’t try too teach these people how to suck eggs, they well know that the system is broken, do you not get the fact that doctors, psych’s etc main job is to look after their patients not do battle with a system that is set up to make their patients lives harder than they already are & as pointed out in the article make their existing conditions even worse than they already are. You’re observations are far to simplistic in my view, you miss the point completely. The problem is that the Australian system is taking notes from the British system, which treats people with disabilities abominably, there are so many things that go on that are just out and out wrong. The system is set up for an immediate knock back on the initial application, as is the NDIS, which is insanity itself because people with disabilities are more vulnerable than most, they often rely on services that are due to cutbacks are often impossible to access, or expensive to get the help they need. This means that those of us with a disability are pushed to the edges of society & often ignored because it makes people more comfortable with something they can’t deal with.

  3. Irfan Yusuf

    Our DSP system is appalling. The law is increasingly stacked against genuinely disabled simply because they don’t meet arbitrary definitions which are assessed often by people with no basic medical knowledge. Thankfully where I worked as a Centrelink appeals lawyer, the Centrelink advocate was very reasonable and the Tribunal member very fair. But so many punters have never heard that there are community lawyers who can and will advocate for them free of charge.

    1. Lesley Graham

      Irfan. I couldn’t agree with you more. I was assessed 8 years ago, it was a nightmare then, i was lucky I got the area manager make an appointment with me, who asked me a few questions & said I can’t see why there’s been so many hold ups & signed me on.. I understand it’s almost impossible now which is is insanity in itself.

  4. klewso

    Get a job as media advisor to a National Party member – if you don’t mind “stirring the tea”?

  5. Aethelstan

    Disgusting behaviour by Centrelink … and even worse by the government… same old LNP … the Nasty Party …

  6. Desmond Graham

    The old utilities when owned by the Government used to employ the disabled by appropriate jobs to do around the place but they turned up for work – now utilities have all been corporatised they pretend to work like businesses and cannot have these inefficiencies on the books. In the meantime those with the disabilities have become used to the handouts and find it an insult to be required to turn up to anything. Also there used to be designated Commonwealth doctors [a local GP ] who had a guide line what constituted a disability – all applicants had to pass the criteria. When these were abolished – then the there was no strict guidelines – whoever had the best story received a disability pension also doled out when the unsuccessful appealed the administrative tribunal expanded the largesse.

    1. margaret handasyde

      Desmond, you realise the article refers to severely disabled or very ill Australians who simply cannot work due to their health issues. There still are guidelines backed up by medical evidence, not good stories. The DSP should be given to people (ie. HUMAN BEINGS) who deserve to live in dignity. It is not largess! as you quaintly put it.

      1. Lesley Graham

        Couldn’t agree with you more Margaret. I have tried to get quals to work from home, my illness has put a halt to that. I do think there are people like Desmond that have no idea what this is all about. I am one of those people that have an illness that creates a whole raft of problems that doesn’t allow me to work, which causes me no end of frustration. I still get people that assume that I do have a job, when I have a walker, (which immediately means there’s no possibility that I can work as due to most company’s insurance policy’s takes me out of even being considered for a job) I do think there are still those that assume that people need to be employed gainfully despite or in spite of their disabilities, without any consideration around the safety for them & others around them.

    2. MAC TEZ

      Oh darn,dear old Desmo’s disturbed by what duplicitous dole-bludging disabled dudes are doing with his dollars.
      Such a shame that Centrelink can’t send a few of ’em over to your digs to lick the dirt off your dusty boots eh DG ?
      You ‘d make sure they earned every cent of that much lamented largesse .

  7. Peter Schulz

    Good old Crikey, shining a light on the dark cesspools avoided by the corporate media. Another example of where the worst ‘Centrelink cheat’ is the Centrelink system itself.
    It says a lot about ‘Australian values’ when the same government that wants to hand over $65B to large (often overseas) corporations does this to vulnerable individuals. It’s not the migrants or the Muslims trashing Australian values, but the political Right themselves.

  8. Jude

    The treatment of DSP claiments and beneficiaries has certainly hardened since the mid 1990s when the Federal government decided that doctors and their patients were colluding to obtain easy access to government funds and there were too many people seeking DSP benefits. Previously the treating doctor provided written information about the claimant’s application. Into this was added an additional approval process of Centrelink assessors who have the authority to ignore the medical advice. I was involved in a DSP review last year which was embarrassing in its amateurishness: more like one of those on line personality tests than a real procedure. So, please remember this is government policy, condoned by those electors who believe that DSP recipients in the main are bludgers who are dodging work. It is not Centrelink nor its staff who make the rules, which are just as unfair and narrow minded as the rules being applied to asylum seekers, especially those who have tried to reach Australia by boat.

  9. AR

    I wonder why the CES strictures are not applied to the Beetrooter, as far as housing benefits, cohabitation, etc are concerned?

  10. Itsarort

    Hmm, seems like the moderator for this article is having an ABC moment… It would be nice for Jeremy Poxon to un-insinuate that the frontline Level 4 APS staff who work for DHS and NDIA, are making ‘unfair’ decisions. It would also be better if he illustrated the Operational Guidelines to which these staff operate under and must comply with and which ultimately determines who is eligible for benefits and who is not (only very specific evidence provided by specialist doctors is admissible). And not once was Michael Keenan’s name mentioned in this article.

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